Can employers ban office romances?

If office romance is an inevitable part of working life, how can you protect your business and be respectful to workplace relationships?

Can employers ban office romances?

by Tanja Katic, Senior Employment Relations Adviser, Employsure

Love is in the air… but should it be? It’s a perennial question for employers when considering romance in the workplace and its potential to collide with HR.

Workplace relationships have become an especially timely issue in the #MeToo era, with employees and employers collectively asking: are workplace relationships ever acceptable? And if so, what rules should govern them?

Data reported by Forbes reveals that almost 60% of people admit to having at least one office romance. Interestingly, 67% of those respondents kept their relationship secret, and 41% didn’t know their company’s policy on workplace romance. Of those who have been in a relationship with a co-worker, 72% would do it again.

There is no point denying it, romance can blossom in the workplace. Co-workers routinely spend more time together than they might spend with friends or family. The shared experience of working together — delivering projects, overcoming obstacles and managing the highs and lows of work — can develop strong emotional bonds between colleagues. It’s only natural that it can be the catalyst for romance.

So, if office romance is an inevitable part of working life, how can you protect your business while being respectful to workplace relationships? Thankfully there are some practical steps you can take, without becoming the Love Police.

Let’s be clear: Harassment is not romance.
Before we even discuss workplace romance, it needs to be made abundantly clear: your workplace must have a current and enforceable sexual harassment policy. The existence and enforcement of a sexual harassment policy isn’t contingent on the prospect of workplace romance.

Sexual harassment policies are an essential feature of your standard suite of HR policies and procedures that clearly define the standards of acceptable workplace behaviour.

Employees who may be the victim of unwanted sexual advances need to have adequate support and access to a reporting mechanism that alerts their employers to inappropriate behaviour so swift action can be taken.

Focus on behaviour, not relationships.
Banning office romance outright probably isn’t a realistic (or enforceable) position for an employer. At best, it just encourages the lovebirds to sneak around. At worst, it can be considered a breach of privacy by employees who can become demoralised or resentful. A better option is to introduce policies that provide clearer definitions of acceptable office behaviour (such a policy could address something like public displays of affection, for example). It allows you to take action if romantic relationships impact on work duties or conduct, without banning the romance altogether.

Address manager/report relationships.?
Workplace romances become especially complicated when the relationship is between a supervisor and a direct report. The power imbalance can add a murky undertone to such a relationship, and as we’ve seen with the #MeToo movement, this kind of power dynamic can too easily stray into exploitation.

Employsure’s State of Work Report recently revealed 1 in 10 Australians have experienced sexual harassment from a boss. With such worrying statistics, what should HR do in such circumstances?

Some companies resort to banning these relationships outright. While this may seem heavy-handed, other companies have introduced policies (known as non-fraternisation policies) whereby a romantic relationship will automatically trigger a change of reporting lines, or the manager is transferred to a different department.

Even if your workplace has a more relaxed attitude to workplace romance, it’s in your best interests to consider how you might handle these specific kinds of relationships.

Encourage and promote disclosure.
An additional step you can take is to introduce a ‘Disclosure Policy’, obliging employees who enter into a romantic relationship with a colleague to disclose the relationship to HR.

The intent of such a policy is not to monitor or interfere with the relationship, but to ensure steps can be taken to avoid potential conflict of interest situations. This policy should also outline the subsequent actions once a relationship is disclosed, and any potential disciplinary action if the policy is not followed. It’s a measure that can help protect the employees, as well as the business.

Education and training.
As we know, company policies and procedures aren’t much good if no-one knows they exist. This is where onboarding, induction and Employee Handbooks are especially important. You should also consider a program of internal refresher courses, so all employees are aware of company policies, and the official position on workplace relationships.

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